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Microplastics: The Hidden Threat to Ecosystems and Health

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that are introduced into the environment as a result of plastic pollution and have a length of less than 5 mm (0.2 inches). The amount of plastic entering the land and water each year is in the millions of tonnes, and it is expected to rise in the future.

Professor Richard Thomson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, first used the phrase “microplastics” in 2004. According to studies, we consume 70,000 tonnes of microplastic particles annually.


There are two categories of microplastics: primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are purposefully manufactured. Microbeads found in personal care items, plastic pellets used in manufacturing, and plastic fibres used in synthetic textiles (like nylon) are a few examples of microplastics. Primary microplastics enter the environment directly through a variety of channels, such as product use (personal care products from homes being washed into wastewater systems), unintentional loss from spills during manufacturing or transport, or abrasion during washing (washing clothing made of synthetic textiles, for example).

Secondary plastics are small bits of plastic created when massive amounts of plastic debris decompose in the ocean and on land. Physical, biological, and chemical photodegradation, particularly photo-oxidation from sunlight exposure, may eventually cause the structural integrity of plastic waste to become invisible to the human eye.

Sources Of Microplastics Around Us

Impact on aquatic creatures

According to a study, Approximately 14 million tonnes of microplastics, which have degraded from the enormous volumes of waste that enter the oceans each year, remain on the planet’s ocean floor. It is the first global estimate of the number of microplastics on the seafloor, and the amount detected is 25 times higher than what was found in earlier regional studies.

In freshwater and marine habitats, microplastics have been discovered in more than 114 aquatic creatures as of 2018. Marine invertebrates, particularly crustaceans like crabs, have microplastics in their tissues and digestive tracts. Floating microplastics are likely to be mistaken for food by fish and birds. Aquatic species that consume microplastics may consume less food and, as a result, have less energy to carry out basic life activities, which can be hazardous to their nervous and reproductive systems. Microplastics are thought to have travelled from zooplankton and microscopic fish to large marine predators.

Cosmetic Industry

Some businesses have substituted microplastics for natural exfoliating ingredients, generally in the form of “microbeads” or “micro-exfoliates.”The beads are typically present in face washes, hand soaps, and other personal care products and are frequently dumped into the sewage system after use. Because of their small size, some pass through early screening screens at wastewater treatment facilities and enter rivers and oceans.

Presence at the highest peak

According to a recent study, microplastics can be found practically anywhere, even on the top of the world’s tallest peak. The first indication of microplastic contamination on a mountain was discovered when researchers examined samples of Mount Everest’s snow and stream. Researchers observed the highest concentration of microplastics at the Base Camp, an area at the foot of Mount Everest.

In the Textiles Industry 

Numerous synthetic fibres, including spandex, nylon, acrylic, and polyester, have been demonstrated in studies to shed off garments and remain in the environment. Polyester, a ready-made, inexpensive substitute for cotton, is the main fibre that endures throughout the textile industry. But these fibres significantly increase the persistence of microplastics in terrestrial, avian, and marine ecosystems. More than 1,900 microplastic fibres can be produced by a single item in a load of laundry, with woollens generating 170% more fibres than other products.

Through Vehicles

 The amount of Microplastics that are released into the environment as a result of tyre wear is substantially larger from car tyres (up to 100% wear) than from other sources, such as aircraft tyres (2% wear), artificial turf (12–50% wear), brakes (8% wear) and road markings (5% wear).

Even in the sea breeze

Researchers discovered plastic pieces in sea spray, indicating that plastics are ejected from the ocean as “bubbles.” At Mimizan Beach in Aquitaine, they used a “cloud catcher” to collect water droplets from sea spray. They estimated that up to 136,000 tonnes of microplastics might be washed ashore each year by sea spray.

In the placentas of unborn babies

A study detected plastic particles in the placentas of four healthy women who had normal pregnancies and births, indicating that the actual amount of microplastics may be substantially greater. Researchers suspect the particles can introduce hazardous compounds into the body, causing long-term damage or disturbing the fetus’s developing immune system, even though the health effects of microplastics on the body are still unknown. The researchers claimed that the moms would like have swallowed or inhaled the particles.

Baby Bottles

 Researchers showed that polypropylene newborn feeding bottles prepared using modern techniques exposed children to microplastics. The release of additional microplastic from heated liquids is similar to other polypropylene products like lunch boxes. Unexpectedly, regular steam sterilisation and the shedding of silicone rubber micro- and nanoparticles cause the silicone rubber baby bottle nipples to deteriorate with time.

Face Masks

Medical face masks have become more popular since the COVID-19 outbreak. Polymers like polyester, polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, and polyurethane make disposable masks. Face mask manufacture, usage, and trash have been added to the list of environmental issues due to the pollution of the environment by plastic particles. Disposable masks decompose after being destroyed into smaller particles (less than 5 mm) and provide a new source of microplastics.

Bottled Water

A recent study found that microplastic contamination affected 93% of the bottled water samples from 11 different brands. There were 325 microplastic particles per litre. Microplastic is twice as prevalent in water from plastic bottles as in tap water. When water is packaged and bottled, some contamination occurs.

Items made of single-use plastic

Disposable paper cups are a popular choice of containers for consuming beverages. According to a recent study by IIT Kharagpur, the breakdown of microplastics and other harmful chemicals in the cups’ lining causes contamination of hot liquid provided in paper cups.

Contamination of agricultural land

According to a recent study, microplastics contaminate the oceans and agricultural land, which affects how the soil and plants interact. Sewage sludge, compost, sewage irrigation, road runoff, atmospheric deposition, and plastics used in agricultural practices are some potential sources of microplastics in agricultural contexts. Microplastics can also be found in biodegradable compost.

Health Concerns 

The research demonstrates that particles can enter organs and move around the body. The effects on health are not fully understood. However, scientists are worried that air pollution particles can enter the body and cause millions of preventable deaths each year and that microplastics can harm human cells in the lab. Small particles were already known to be inhaled through food and water and were discovered in both newborns’ and adults’ faeces.

Microplastics can’t decompose naturally. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the annual amount of plastic pollution from all sorts of plastics in the oceans alone was projected to reach 4 million to 14 million tonnes. As airborne fibres and dust particles, microplastics are another source of air pollution.

To overcome this obstacle groups like the United Nations Expert Panel on the United Nations Environmental Programme have launched educational campaigns in 100 nations to increase awareness of plastic pollution and encourage its reuse and recycling. One of the most essential steps in reducing microplastic contamination is to remove microplastics from the environment. To address marine debris, particularly microplastic contamination, several worldwide cooperative programmes have been formed. The US enacted the Microbead-Free Water Act in 2015, outlawing the production and distribution of rinse-off cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads. Other countries have banned the use of microbeads.

One strategy being researched involves microbes with the capacity to break down synthetic microplastic polymers. Several bacterial and fungi species use biodegradation to break down materials like polystyrene, polyester, polyurethane, and polyethene. A very common crustacean known as Gammarus duebeni, which is found in Irish streams, has been discovered by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland to be able to break down microplastics (smaller than 5 mm) and transform them into nano plastics (pieces that measure less than one micrometre) in less than 100 hours.